A lot is going on in your body when you work out — your muscles are firing, you’re sweating, your heart rate is increasing… but what about your hormones?
No matter your biological sex, everybody has testosterone and estrogen (sex hormones). We also have hormones like insulin, prolactin, serotonin, and cortisol. So what’s going on with all that when we exercise?
There’s a lot to cover, but here’s a very light, broad look at the key hormones at play: testosterone and estrogen, cortisol, insulin, and endorphins.
Unique Bodies, Unique Workouts
There are so many variables in this area — your body, your genetic makeup, your current hormone levels, any preexisting conditions that impact hormone levels, what type of workout you’re doing, how often and for how long, and so on and so forth. The information ahead is general, providing some broad context (and not medical advice!) so if you do have concerns about your hormones when it comes to your workout regime, definitely consult your physician.
“Exercise has been shown to increase the body’s secretion of cortisol, testosterone, prolactin, growth hormone, Insulin-like Growth factor (IGF), and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH),” says Dr. Megen McBride, ND, at Four Moon Spa in Encinitas, CA, a modern space for beauty, healing + wholeness. “Exercise type, intensity, and duration, as well as age, nutrition, and sleep quality all play important factors in hormone responses and physiological adaptations to exercise.”
Testosterone, Progesterone, and Estrogen
The sex hormones are found in varying amounts depending on your biology and your unique makeup. When it comes to exercise, studies have largely focused on the differences between male and female bodies, with HIIT being beneficial for men and moderate-intensity being most beneficial for women. This research isn’t the end all be all, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
In general, exercise has a positive effect on all bodies and the equilibrium of sex hormone levels. “Testosterone and growth hormones elevate 15 to 30 minutes after resistance
exercise, which is important for tissue growth and remodeling of bone and muscle,” says Dr. McBride. “Exercise also improves circulating estrogen levels with anaerobic resistance exercise (i.e., HIIT), causing a more powerful response than aerobic exercise (i.e., walking, biking, swimming).”
The physical stress of exercise increases the production of cortisol — the stress hormone — in the body. A little cortisol is a good thing; it wakes your body up, gets you charged up for a workout, and so on. But too much keeps your body in that ‘fight or flight’ mode, which can be detrimental to your health.
“Working out can cause stress if not done properly; stress increases cortisol levels, which can equate to weight gain,” says Adriana Vargas, PMA, Pilates Master Teacher, and founder of Live+Love Pilates in La Jolla, CA. She explains that if you’re on a hormone-focused workout program, it will incorporate your diet and exercise “in a safe and peaceful environment, so your cortisol levels stay low — that could be any workout that focuses on breath and mind body connection.”
If you’re struggling with insulin resistance or even diabetes, exercise can help (but should not be relied upon as your only method of treatment). According to the American Diabetes Association, “a single exercise session can increase insulin-stimulated glucose uptake in previously sedentary adults,” and “A single bout of moderate-intensity exercise can increase glucose uptake by at least 40%.” In other words, exercise has a beneficial impact on insulin balance.
We all know the famous Legally Blonde quote…. “Exercise gives you endorphins.” Comically phrased but holds truth. Exercise does release endorphins (happy hormones), as well as happy neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Other Healthy Ways to Support Your Hormones
As Dr. McBride said earlier, exercise isn’t the only part of your healthy lifestyle that plays a role in hormone management. Lara Briden, ND, a naturopathic doctor with more than twenty years’ experience in women’s health and author of Period Repair Manual and Hormone Repair Manual tells FitOn that “Eating protein by 10 am sends beneficial signals to the ‘clock genes’ that regulate insulin and metabolism. That’s why a protein breakfast can help to regulate circadian rhythm and promote weight loss.”
In addition to timing your protein intake well, your sleep schedule matters, too — you can help your circadian rhythm out by timing your shower or bath for later in the day. “A warm bath or shower an hour or two before bed makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep,” says Dr. Briden. “It works by temporarily raising body temperature and then allowing it to drop again, which promotes sleep. According to research, a bath in the afternoon can also help to normalize circadian rhythm and improve mood.”
The bottom line is that when it comes to hormone balance, it takes a multi-faceted approach. If you have questions about hormone balance, be sure to talk to your health care provider. Coming up with an individualized plan designed for your unique needs is important! With all things wellness, there’s non-one-size-fits-all.